A FREELANCE videographer plans to challenge the Portland Police Bureau in court after a cop confiscated his camera and cited him, in apparent retaliation for videotaping the cop as he searched a suspect in the street.
Mike Tabor, 47, has been videotaping police activities for the last two years with his Sony Handycam, as a citizen journalist working under the name "Joe Anybody." He posts footage of their activities (especially at demonstrations) on his website, Joe-Anybody.com. Tabor started videotaping Officer Dane Reister last Tuesday, March 25, at SW 10th and Main, after he saw Reister hurrying to catch up with two men in the street, one of whom was Hispanic, the other white.
"I just thought it was weird because I wasn't sure why he was stopping the men," says Tabor. "So I decided to start filming."
Officer Reister and his partner, Officer Nick Ragona, searched both men and found nothing on them, so they let them go. Early in the encounter, as seen on Tabor's tape, Reister told Ragona, "We're being filmed," and Ragona responded, "I see that." Following the encounter, Reister approached Tabor and asked him his name, and whether he had been recording audio.
"I'm recording video and audio, yes," Tabor responds on the tape.
"Give me the camera," Reister says on the tape. He then wrote Tabor a property receipt for it.
"I told Ragona I was shocked they would take a camera from a journalist," says Tabor. "I told him I thought this was serious, and asked who I should talk to."
Ragona told Tabor to follow them to Central Precinct on SW 2nd, where after 20 minutes, Reister emerged from the back room with his camera and a citation under ORS.165.540, for "obtaining contents of communication (unlawful)."
"He told me the men were drug dealers," says Tabor, adding that he told the officer he was concerned about drug dealers too. "I asked him how I could have filmed the encounter where he would have been comfortable, and he told me I'd been standing too close and made him uncomfortable."
Attorney Benjamin Haile responds to the cop's logic: "The reasonable thing to do if someone is standing too close is to ask them to move back," says Haile, who has decided to defend Tabor against the citation, and if necessary, pursue the matter through federal court on constitutional grounds. "It is not appropriate, without warning, to single out the videographer from other observers and take his camera and give him a ticket."
Haile says it's very important that people have the right to monitor the police and that video is a powerful tool with which to do that. He thinks the law is either being misapplied or it's unconstitutional, according to the First Amendment right to free press and freedom of expression, and also, Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Bill of Rights. Haile thinks there is a strong chance a judge will agree, and dismiss the case.
"If a person observes the police doing something they want to tell other people about and they're prohibited from making video, then their ability to credibly communicate what they saw is stolen from them," he says. "It is very literally stolen from them when the police seize their camera."
Reister declined comment in person, but Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese returned the Mercury's call.
"It was an unusual situation: an officer dealing with a person he knew was a drug dealer from previous experience, believing they were engaged in a deal," says Reese, referring to the suspect Reister was searching. "These are dangerous situations for us, and unpredictable.
"To have someone stand behind the officer while he is involved in a narcotics investigation is a problem," Reese continues. "I think he took an action based on the law, and the constitutionality of these things is for the courts to decide."
Tabor says he will continue to videotape officers in the course of their duty.
"A lot of people say, you're just asking for trouble," he says. "But I'm just concerned about peace and justice, being a good journalist, and about police accountability. That's all."